(Photo from MyFox25)
Annie Dookhan was just your average, over-worked state employee, punching the clock at the Hinton State Laboratory in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. Her duties, testing drug evidence for cases that were bound for criminal prosecution, were well within her qualifications. She held a Master’s Degree in chemistry from the University of Massachusetts, and she was fast, capable, and driven. In her nine years at the lab she tested evidence for an estimated 34,000 drug cases that led to the convictions of some of Boston’s most dangerous criminals. What could possibly have gone wrong?
Well, for one, she was lying about her Master’s Degree. UMASS has no record of Annie Dookhan taking graduate classes there. But that bit of creative resume building is pretty tame compared to allegations that forced her resignation, shuttered the laboratory, and ousted the state’s public health commissioner.
According to state prosecutors, Annie Dookhan falsified tests and mishandled evidence for years. And she admitted to it when police first questioned her in August. To make matters worse, she cannot remember which cases she shat the bed on. This calls into question every conviction that relied on evidence that Annie signed off on.
We spoke to Scott Allen, Senior Assistant Metro Editor at the Boston Globe, and one of a handful of investigative reporters covering this unfolding story. The case of Annie Dookhan, or as some papers have dubbed her, “the rogue chemist,” is poised to become one of the most dangerous and expensive government screw up in years.
VICE: So what’s the deal with Annie Dookhan? Who is she? How did she specifically mishandle this evidence, and why?
Scott Allen: She’s of a great deal of fascination around here in Massachusetts. On first blush, she’s a bright young woman from Barbados, who wanted to do a good job. At least that’s what she told people. And she’s not particularly menacing looking—she’s small, and petite, and pretty, and college educated, and she was the most hard-working person in the lab. But she had terrible work habits. When the state police came to her house and interviewed her about concerns that had been raised in the lab, she basically confessed to sometimes recording drug evidence as positive when they were negative. She would take a whole bunch of drug samples and only test one or two of them, and then say, “Well, based on that, all the rest of them are also positive,” just based on sight. She took samples out of the evidence room without signing it out. She appeared to be doing favors for certain prosecutors, at least insofar as she was taking their cases more quickly, and breaking all the rules about handling evidence.
And tainted evidence is a huge problem when convictions are challenged.
As you know, in a criminal prosecution, making sure the evidence is always secure is vital and making sure there’s no question of bias is also vital. So she’s just running roughshod over all of the rules, and she admitted to doing this for a few years. She was there for nine years, and so people now say you can’t trust anything she did or any test that was conducted while she worked at Hinton labs. All counted, that’s 190,000 cases.
Will Boston’s streets be flooded with drug convicts that were sprung because of Annie Dookhan?
Well, yes, it certainly looks that way. All 34,000 cases that Annie Dookhan handled are now under a cloud, and they’re all being reviewed. Already at least 100 people have been released because Dookhan analyzed their evidence. And everybody expects the numbers to grow and grow and grow. In fact, a lot of us are thinking one of the big stories next year is going to be the re-arrest of all of these people who are now being let go.
Isn’t there a double jeopardy situation that would be encountered by re-arresting these newly sprung convicts?
I see what you’re saying, but what we’re anticipating is new crimes. If you look at like the first wave of prisoners who were released in the Boston area, you’re talking about a lot of drug dealers, people with long criminal histories. They’re not like kids, 19- or 20-year olds caught on possession. We’re talking about a lot of people whose business is selling drugs. So, you put them back on the streets and that’s their profession. So a lot of them are going to go back to it. It’s just a matter of time.
So how are these cases being handled? Are they just digging through old files and letting people go?
There’s now a special “drug court” set up here to handle all of these so-called “Dookhan defendants,” and every day there’s a fresh list of people coming in front of judges. Their defense attorneys are saying, “Your Honor, my client should be exonerated” or “My client should be released because the evidence was handled by Annie Dookhan.” There’s a long list of them. I have a database full of all of these people, some of whom have six-, eight-, ten-page rap sheets, and even if you threw out the evidence in this particular case, there’s not much question that they’ve had a long history with drug sales.
Do you expect there to be an increase in violence?
The Boston police are very worried about that. There are a number of cases where the real interest in the defendant was a gang shooting or murder, and they didn’t have the evidence to convict them on those charges. But they had the evidence to convict them on drugs. Sometimes drug defendants are easier to prosecute—you catch somebody with cocaine over a certain threshold, you say, “Well, you had intent to sell,” and there it is, sort of cut-and-dry. If there’s a gang murder, it’s often hard to get witnesses to testify truthfully to secure a conviction.
So there’s a great fear that there are violent criminals that are about to be set free, or already have been set free. Certainly, looking at the rap sheets of the first 20 or so that went out the door from Suffolk County, which is where Boston is, it included people with histories of assault, rape, and other things in addition to drugs.
Have innocent people been wrongfully convicted from Annie’s false testing?
There’s this one particular case where this guy, who was a real sleaze ball, was selling fake cocaine. So he’s going around selling fake cocaine to drug users, and he’s caught by the police and arrested for selling fake cocaine. But when Annie Dookhan tests it, she says, “No, that’s real cocaine.”
So the guy got put away for actual cocaine, not just fake cocaine. So how many cases are out there like that? It’s hard to feel too sorry for a person in that situation—he kind of put himself there—but defense attorneys focus very hard on miscarriage of justice. They go after cases where there’s been a miscarriage of justice.
So there’s been 190,000 drug cases in the nine years Annie worked there. Is that a lot? Are drug labs overburdened?
It was a recurring theme within that lab that they didn’t have the resources to do their job, and they really felt pressed. Annie Dookhan was held in high regard by her supervisors because she was a fast worker. She was actually testing these drugs two or three times faster than all of her colleagues, so instead of viewing her as a suspicious person who might be mishandling evidence, they instead viewed her as a special asset because she worked so quickly. So it’s definitely true that they felt short-handed and over-stressed, but I don’t think that justifies rampant disregard for lab protocol.
Marcus Pixley, one of the first defendants to hit the streets because of evidence tainted by Dookhan, landed back in jail within days. (Photo: Suffolk County D.A.)
Was she part of a bigger conspiracy to taint drug samples or alternatively to convict as many people as possible?
It is conceivable there’s something bigger going on. Annie is sort of an enigmatic figure. Apparently she’d been having some personal problems the last several years of her life. She said that her marriage was breaking up, she suffered a miscarriage in 2009, and it was around that time that she started having this inappropriate email relationship with one of the prosecutors that she did drug analysis for. It appears that she developed a crush on him, and she sort of poured her heart out to him. The impression you get is a sort of fragile person who is not doing well in her life and is indulging in sort of a fantasy relationship with a prosecutor.
But then you start thinking about the prosecution’s point of view and the police’s point of view. Having a chemist inside the state drug lab who is willing to do favors for you is very valuable on more than one level. First, she’ll do the work quickly for you. If you’ve got a case coming up, she’ll take care of it. Second, maybe she tilts the weight in your favor. Maybe she finds things in your favor.
Even if you’re talking about an emotionally damaged and vulnerable person who’s like crossing some lines of propriety with prosecutors, it’s fairly easy to imagine prosecutors taking advantage of that weakness. And she had close relationships with several prosecutors and several drug officers. They called her all the time on her cellphone. So, to go back to your question, could it be something larger? That’s conceivable, but it’s also possible that what you have is a weak link in the chain that prosecutors and police saw they could take advantage of. And they did.
So what’s next? What’s going to happen over the next two or three months? What should we be paying attention to?
Well, we’re just now getting down to how much is it going to cost to fix all of these problems? Let’s talk about the 190,000 cases. If you agree to actually pull the files on 190,000 cases and review them, it is going to cost an enormous amount of money. Governor Deval Patrick’s administration is now collecting estimates of how much it’s going to cost to clean up this mess from the various different agencies, like prosecutors, police, and defense lawyers. But, right now, the estimate is something in the area of $40 million, and that’s just the beginning. You could easily have a price tag that runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars to undo all the damage.
Wow. So we should stay tuned to this, right? This story’s got legs.
Yeah it does. As time goes on, it doesn’t get better. It gets worse. You can clear the books of a lot of these, but you put more and more and more of these people back on the streets. And if you look at instances of rape among hard-core drug dealers, it’s very, very high. So you’re talking about people going back to what they did before, so it’s almost like you and I can start planning for a crime wave in 2013.